The You're-on-Your-Own Society
An unidentified man, left, watches Allen Duncan, homeless and unemployed, sleep on a sidewalk, August 8, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Of all the divisions between the candidates in this election, perhaps the deepest was over whether, as President Obama put it, we are all in this together. Do we believe in solving our problems by sharing them—through the Affordable Care Act, grants for low-income college students, progressive income taxes that fund public services, help for the unemployed, infrastructure improvements, scientific research and other essential features of modern democracies that are taken for granted in just about every other Western industrialized country? Or do we believe, with Mitt Romney, that each of us is on his or her—maybe especially her—own? Do we believe in government, or in billionaires? A tax-funded safety net for everyone, or a patchwork of charities and churches with no obligation—or, let’s be realistic, capacity—to help all in need? Do we agree with Romney that the government should turn disaster recovery over to the states or, “even better,” private enterprise? Maybe Hurricane Sandy clarified that question for some of those famous undecided voters. It certainly seems to have done that for Governor Christie.
The logical corollary of “You’re on your own” is “You’re your own damn fault.” Americans in general are keen on seeing social problems in terms of individual weakness—look at how we demonize fat people, as if the reason so many are overweight is just a lack of willpower. But that mindset is particularly part of the right-wing DNA. After all, if you can hold people solely responsible for their problems, you can ignore them, deprive them, even hate them. Rape victims, women with unwanted pregnancies, poor people (get a job!), drug users, children who commit crimes, people who have been imprudent or out of line in any way, have only themselves to blame. Nicholas Kristof wrote a New York Times column a few weeks ago about his friend Scott, who had a midlife crisis, quit his job to read books and play poker, didn’t buy health insurance even after he went back to work because it was too expensive, and, partly to save money but also because he was busy and had no wife to nudge him, postponed seeing the doctor about disturbing symptoms that proved to be caused by advanced prostate cancer. Kristof’s point was that we all make mistakes, and that good public policy takes that into account. In a follow-up column that noted Scott’s death, Kristof wrote that he was “taken aback by how many readers were savagely unsympathetic. ‘Your friend made a foolish choice, and actions have consequences,’ one reader said in a Twitter message.” Yes, actions have consequences, and that’s why we need society to protect us from our folly, ignorance and bad judgment—our own and one another’s. Sooner or later, everybody takes risks that turn out poorly. Some people have unprotected sex, cross against the light, drive too fast, ride a motorcycle without a helmet in Connecticut (where for some crazy reason that is legal), don’t wear a seat belt, drink too much, send money in response to e-mails from Nigerian princes, don’t vaccinate their kids. Some people refused to evacuate during Sandy—should relief workers deny them a hot meal and a blanket?
If you want an example of how approaching social issues from an individualist mindset harms everyone, consider lung cancer. This very serious disease kills 160,000 Americans each year—that’s more than one in four cancer deaths. It is the number-one fatal cancer in both women and men. Twice as many women die of lung cancer as breast cancer—and one in five of those women has never smoked a single cigarette (for men, it’s one in twelve). In fact, at least 55 percent of people with lung cancer either never smoked or no longer smoke; some quit decades ago. And yet, because lung cancer is generally associated with smoking, and smoking is an addiction and something only “morons” and “idiots” (to use Tea Party terminology) would ever, ever do, lung cancer does not get anything like the research funding from the National Institutes of Health that other cancers get, relative to the number of deaths it causes. There are no telethons or star-studded Hollywood galas, no race for the lung cancer cure, none of those weirdly cheerful “awareness” campaigns. Even the afflicted and their families tend to stay quiet—the stigma is too great. Never mind that many of them started smoking back in the Mad Men days when it was a ubiquitous custom promoted by government, media and, of course, the powerful tobacco industry itself. For years after the surgeon general’s report, women’s magazines were crammed with cigarette ads and left lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases out of their editorial coverage of health issues.
Today, the ads are fewer—thanks to, yes, government regulations—but because of guilt and shame, the silence continues. “You don’t know how ignored we are by the media,” Linda Wenger, head of the advocacy group Uniting Against Lung Cancer, told me by phone.
As it happens, a dear friend of mine is dying of lung cancer. Lynn never smoked; she did yoga and exercised and ate lots of brown rice and vegetables and lived most of the time in the fresh air of the country. I used to tease her for being such a health nut. Cancer didn’t care. Perhaps if Lynn’s disease had gotten the funding it deserved based on its prevalence, she would have been diagnosed sooner, have more good years ahead, maybe even be cancer free.
Another friend with lung cancer was a light smoker. So what? If he’d smoked a pack a day, as I did for many years, or three packs, like my father, who lived to be 86, he would still be a father, a husband, a writer, a friend. A valuable person, like all people—and like all people, he is not perfect. What was it the man said about casting stones? You know, the guy the right-wing Christians who can’t wait to overturn Obamacare say they love so much?
No man is an island, or every man for himself? Yesterday, America decided which would be its watchword.
Read Nation blogger Ari Melber on “Barack Obama’s Decisive Victory for Liberal Government.”